How to Survive a Jump Off a Cruise Ship

Remember Titanic? I’m old enough to have watched it on VHS as a kid, captivated for the same reason the RMS Titanic and its maiden voyage have become lore: that enormous ship listing, iceberg-struck, snapped in two, surrounded by the frigid waters of the north Atlantic. Hundreds perished in that wreck -- working-class hero Leonardo DiCaprio included! -- and the disaster spurred changes that have made ocean liners much safer since.

You know what else has changed since 1912? The ships have gotten bigger. Much, much bigger. Math says you’re incredibly unlikely to face disaster aboard a cruise, but tell that to your brain the next time you’re on one of these floating skyscrapers, when you peer over the railing, recall the wind blowing past Jack and Rose, and wonder, "Holy shit, if I fell from this high up, would I survive?"

Excellent question, in fact. Tell your brain to buckle up -- we’ve got you covered. Then, yeah, do your best to keep both feet on the deck.

cruise ship deck
Dirk Saeger/Shutterstock

The sheer size of cruise ships is officially absurd

Edwardian era disasters be damned, globalization and an inescapable je ne sais quoi for the high seas has caused a boom for the cruise industry. In terms of scale, modern cruises barely resemble the steamers and coal-powered ships from the ocean liner’s pre-WWII golden age; today’s vessels are both larger and safer.

Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, for example, is tied for the second-largest cruise ship in the world (for now). It’s nearly five times bigger than the Titanic. And where safety is concerned, the stats are telling. Lifeboats: 372 (with seats for every passenger and then some), compared to Titanic’s 20 (scarcely enough for half of the passengers). Oasis of the Seas can accommodate about 6,300 passengers -- to house, feed, entertain, and, of course, transport them. It has 16 decks, stretches 1,187 feet in length, and has a waterline (where the hull of the ship meets the water) of 154 feet.

In sum, the Oasis of the Seas and its ilk are Very Large Objects, some of the largest ever built for non-military purposes, and they boast some of the most advanced radar technology available. So it’s never going to sink, and you won’t need to jump (probably). But -- what if the ship is sinking? What if you need to jump? How can you do it properly? For starters... get down from that top deck.

You can definitely OD on gravity

When you want to know the limits of human endurance, work backward from world records. Stefanie Linder, a rep for the World High Diving Federation, told me that Red Bull extreme athlete Laso Schaller currently holds the dive height record, diving 192 feet and entering the water at 76 mph.

That, she stressed, was the, well, high-water mark and very much the exception to the rule. She didn’t recommend dives higher than 90 feet, already a terrifying distance to countenance. “The body is exposed to enormous forces,” she cautioned, “especially during entrance into the water.”

Contact with the water is the moment of highest risk. Turns out your back isn’t a big fan of being compressed upon entry. “While the parts of the body under water are in highest deceleration, the rest of the body above the water is still in full acceleration,” Linder explained.

In the edge case of needing to jump ship, there are some rules of thumb to consider. Absolutely do not dive head first, Linder stressed.  She likewise assured me that no experienced diver worth his Speedo will go into the water horizontally or make a crash-landing of any sort. Aim for clear, deep water. And be aware of any obstacles along the way.

I once jumped from about 40 feet into the placid, cobalt-blue waters of Lake Huron, and it was simultaneously propulsive, thrilling, and petrifying. Having to jump ship, romantic notions of Jack and “You-jump-I-jump” Rose notwithstanding, is entirely another matter. Linder recommend that for those about to take the dive, “necessary strengths include courage, self-confidence,” and “extraordinary physical control.” Flailing is failing, people.

cruise ship view

Take extreme care even when jumping from low heights

Similarly, a jump or dive from a low height can seriously hurt if not executed properly. Even the world’s best divers take that fall seriously. Several times during my conversation with David Colturi, a Red Bull cliff diver pro, currently on the World Cup circuit, he stressed that safety is paramount in diving. That goes double for jumps from shorter objects -- pleasure boats, tire swings, the sort of heights where you let your guard down. From as low as 10 feet, an improper dive can have ugly results. “Ruptured ear drums, torn muscles,” Colturi explained, conjuring a belly flop gone terribly wrong.

Linder confirmed: “You will probably feel pain even from 3 feet.”

The odds of a cruiser ever needing to jump ship are slim -- and a last-ditch. Remember all those lifeboats, themselves serious sea-going vessels, the Oasis has onboard? Crews are trained in emergency and evacuation procedures, and cruises tend to avoid contested, dangerous, and pirate-populated waters.

Jack and Rose exhibited the necessary strengths it takes to survive* a calamity. Holding hands was ill-advised (a sympathetic judge would, perhaps, score it a 5), but who can blame ‘em? Should you find yourself in a dire spot and need to jump, calculate your distance, and, as Colturi advised me in his best coaching voice, “Find a clean flight path.” Which, when you think about it, is just solid overall life advice.

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Frankie Caracciolo is a writer living in Brooklyn and is a New York native. He once came in last place in a scything competition at the Vermont State Fair. Follow him at @Frank_Ignazio.